Please don’t make your mom open your mail.
People who live a traveling lifestyle usually have a very independent attitude. These are people who are willing to freelance, bounce between jobs or save for years to quit their job altogether. They’ll go to developing countries on a shoestring budget with one suitcase and no one to watch their back. They’re brave.
But that independence seems to vanish when it comes to mail.
Mail is the bane of the traveler’s existence. Where mail once helped connect travelers to their home and friends, now it’s the least reliable of all forms of communication. And often the hardest. While I was able to get internet in a hut on a farm in Thailand, I still can’t be sure my “certified” postcards will ever make it stateside from the Dominican Republic.
And sending mail isn’t so much of a problem as receiving mail. You can’t just give people your new address in, say, France. You might only be there a month, or you might randomly take a jaunt to Turkey for weeks before coming back.
So location independent travelers try to minimize the mail they’re going to get. We sign up for paperless billing, we cancel unnecessary subscriptions, we refuse to give out an address to hopeful relatives who love to send Christmas cards.
That does not eliminate the mail.
Even the most ardently digital traveler has to deal with some combination of the following:
- Checks from clients
- Tax documents at the end of the year
- Legal papers
- Unexpected but important mailings from financial institutions, current/past employers, etc.
- The ever-present risk of something that is important, but that you did not think of cancelling/taking care of before you left.
The thing about all of these documents is that just letting them pile up in a PO box isn’t healthy. They all require action. Action that’s hard to take from around the world.
Most people solve this problem in one easy step: they ask their parents to check their mail.
Don’t make your parents handle your mail. I’ve done it, and mine happened to do a great job with it, and it’s still a terrible idea. Here’s why.
1. It’s not really fair. ”Checking the mail” might seem like a minor chore, and if you’re just on vacation for a couple weeks that’s true. For a long term traveler, this task doesn’t just involve making a mail pile—it means going through it, opening pieces that look important, telling you what was inside, and then forwarding/handling/saving/depositing the contents. And there’s a lot more mail than you think—the junk mail will keep coming, and needs to be thoughtfully separated from the rare important stuff.
A parent who loves you enough to do all that should not be treated as your personal secretary.
2. They aren’t good at it. If you had to make a list of the least tech fluent people you know, your parents would probably be on it. Is that who you want scanning important documents, or hopping on Skype to explain a letter you got? And while parents have the sincerest intentions, I’m not sure that my mom or dad is the one I want to have to explain international mailing to, or how to fill out a form for my bank. Your parents probably have never mailed something to Hungary before, and your complicated instructions to get it to your Budapest hostel are likely to be, well, fudged.
3. You will end up angry. All the above means you will, more than once, get very upset with your parents. When that check from a client (who refuses to use Paypal, of course) gets shredded with the junk mail, or you get your eighth email asking whether a credit card advertisement is important enough to send to you, you’re going to get a little bothered. And you know what? Your parents will too.
4. Your time. Maybe you (and your parents) can negotiate all of these obstacles. But I guarantee you that the hour you spend Skyping—at 1 a.m. Bangkok time—for each unexpected important letter is going to get old. Your surrogate mailbox plan will take up more of your time, and theirs, than it’s really worth.
Of course, maybe your parents cheerfully offered to check your mail. Turn them down. They don’t know what they’re getting you (and them) into. And maybe you could ask a friend instead of your parents, but it’s the same set of problems (maybe minus #2).
When I first a started traveling my Mom kindly offered to handle all my mail. She was very thoughtful about it and always wanted to make sure that I got important documents taken care of.
I can’t imagine a mom having a better attitude about it. Thank you, Mom!
But eventually it got to be a frustrating amount of work for her, and a source of stress for both of us. It’s just a bad idea.
Now, every few months or so she’ll still get a check for me and she’ll send it in to the bank. But I’ve moved my mail delivery over to a mail service, and I have never looked back.
Here’s how my mail service works:
- I pay US $15 per month.
- I have a permanent mailbox in Sanford, NC. (You can choose other cities.)
- All my mail is sent there. When it shows up, they immediately scan it. I can see the outside of each piece of mail online immediately.
- I choose what to do with each piece. I can have them open it and scan the inside, I can tell them to forward it to me (or anywhere else), or I can have it shredded—or just set aside.
- If they get a check for me I can have them deposit it in my bank, although there is a small extra fee for this.
- They will hold packages, fill out forms, do basically anything I want them to do with my mail.
This has made my life as a traveler (and a freelancer) infinitely easier. If they get mail for me I get an email and I can immediately see whether it’s important or not. Most of my mail I just have shredded. But if I need it sent to Santo Domingo, they’ll do that.
So which mail service do I use? Rogue Priest does not accept sponsored posts and never runs affiliate links. I have not been paid to make this recommendation. My personal preference is TravelingMailbox.com. After looking at the prices and services of about 20 different virtual mail services, Traveling Mailbox seems to have the lowest rates with the best value. (There are some that charge $10/month or $12/month instead but then throw a bunch of fees at you. Traveling Mailbox is just a nice easy $15/month for most services.)
Can You Afford to Travel?
I realize that $15/month may not be easy for a bootstrapped traveler. When I first moved to Thailand I balked at spending money on anything unnecessary—even bottled water. But I don’t consider it optional: if you can’t afford a mailing service you can’t afford to travel.
Are there exceptions to this? I’d love to hear your answer. I think that asking a parent, friend or relative to handle your mail long-term verges on wrong; it’s unfair to them. What do you think? Please leave a comment and let me know.